In the treasury of world musical heritage, there are masterpieces that, once written, enter the stage for years on end, intriguing both the performers and the audience by their endless expressive potential. Such is the case with the world-famous song “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” written in 1936 by Cole Porter and since then enjoying incredible popularity among the public. Among its numerous performances and recordings are those made by Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, two cult singers of their times.
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Although presenting the same song in the same style, each of the performers interprets its rhythmic, melodic, timbre, and texture sides so that the listener witnesses two strikingly different results. It is the purpose of the present paper to examine how variation in the aforementioned concepts affects the initially identical musical piece.
What the listener immediately perceives when first hearing the song is its rhythm, the initial way of organizing time in music; and in the two performances, rhythm is the crucial point of divergence. Although both Sinatra’s and Tormé’s recordings proceed in approximately the same tempo, the rhythmical side of the pieces is arranged in different ways. Sinatra’s recording initially leaves no doubts for the listener as to the pace of the song, since it is clearly outlined from the first sounds of the rhythmical framework.
The latter is provided by the sharp line of dotted notes of the saxophone against the harmonic background of the brass group and the regular chords of the keyboards. The bright timbre of the instruments rendering the rhythmical aspect of the song allows the rhythm to break through the musical texture throughout the piece.
In contrast, Tormé’s recording enters in with a rhythmically vague phrase of the solo flute which only seconds later gains at least some rhythmical support rendered by the guitar that articulates a constant repetitive rhythm.
However, this rhythmical base is entrusted to the instrument of such a light sound that eventually it is completely lost in the juicy sound of the strings supporting the soaring melody of the flute. An additional factor that destabilizes the rhythmical scheme is the presence of syncopes in the melody played by the flute and in the supporting voices played by the string instruments when the soloist articulates his melody.
With such contrast in the rhythmical design of the two recordings, the melodic side provides additional grounds for the opposition of the two interpretations of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Frank Sinatra generally preserves the rhythmic correspondence of the melody to the overall beat of the piece and limits the melody to a rather speech-like act with moderate range and syllabic text setting.
On the contrary, Mel Tormé engages in vocalizing that is aimed at demonstrating the expressive capacities of his smooth voice rather than at articulating the text according to its natural accents.
Tormé plays with the beat of the song, starting and ending melodic lines between the main beats and developing them through a series of vibrating crescendos and diminuendos of the same sound, vocalizing even the (nasal) consonants. The primacy of the vocal melody over all the other elements of the song is emphasized in the final cadence, where Tormé engages into an improvisation on the phrase “I’ve got you under my skin” that employs not only words but also vocalization.
Both performed in the major key, the two versions of the song represent the different treatment of that key using timbre and texture. In Sinatra’s version, the listener perceives an interpretation that speaks of resolute action. Such understanding is made possible not only through the resolute rhythmic and melodic structure but also through the instruments employed in the song.
Bright-timbered saxophone and brass instruments play a key role throughout the piece, performing a rhythmic and melodic ostinato and bursting through in an impressive instrumental fragment in the second half of the song. The texture of the whole piece is rather compact, with saxophone, brass instruments, and keyboards providing the rhythmic and harmonic support, and the strings entering only occasionally with a lyrical supporting voice.
Close to the culminating point and the instrumental fragment in the middle, the texture is enriched, with the brass group taking on the main melody and the solo trombone leading an independent improvisational melody. In Tormé’s version, the instrumentation emphasizes the improvisational and rather passive character of the interpretation.
No heavy-sounding instruments are involved, with the texture saturated only by the light-timbered guitar, flute, and the strings. The especial airiness of the texture is achieved through letting the flute and the strings pursue their melodies and not involving them into the persistent articulation of the general rhythmic pattern.
The preceding comparison and contrast of the two performances required repeated listening since all the details become clear only after attentive heeding. The initial impression of the performances tilted my preference in favor of Sinatra’s version since Tormé appeared too lame and self-admiring to inspire any listener’s sympathy.
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However, having listened over and over to Tormé’s version and having analyzed the peculiarities of his interpretation, I have arrived at the conclusion that his creative individuality is strong and therefore different from Sinatra’s. The experience of analyzing two versions of one song has taught me the lesson of seeing the beauty in the diversity within the same style of music and of admiring the outward simplicity and the inner complexity of that beauty.